Renowned academic Dame Anne Salmond tells Andrew Laxon that the solutions to our burning issues need to come from common ground

Dame Anne Salmond has a plan for the greening of New Zealand - one river bank at a time.

The Auckland University historian and anthropologist wants to enlist an army of volunteers to plant "bush buffers" around the country's polluted streams and rivers, which will stop river banks collapsing and bring back vanishing plant and animal species.

The project is due to start next year and Salmond already has her sights on a group like the student army that pitched in to repair the damage caused by the Christchurch earthquakes.

"We know that we've got a lot of young people who care about what's happening to the environment in New Zealand and would love to do something practical, literally put on their gumboots and do a mucking-in type thing."


The do-gooder impulse and sense of fun will be backed up by solid engineering and science, she promises, so everyone plants the right species in the right place. University graduates will monitor the results with school students and the whole project will be viewable on an online aerial map nicknamed Green Google.

Salmond is slightly reluctant to publicise the plan because she normally likes to keep her big ideas under the radar until she's sure they're working. But she offers this as a practical example to show the intellectual challenge she is making to New Zealanders this week is based on action.

Salmond is about to deliver the first annual Reeves Memorial Lecture, named after former Governor-General and Anglican archbishop Sir Paul Reeves and intended to stimulate public debate as the BBC's Reith lectures have done in Britain.

She pays tribute to Reeves' ability to move freely between Maori and Pakeha worlds and see the best in both, a trait many have seen in her.

The internationally acclaimed academic is best known for her books on early European-Polynesian encounters in the Pacific, including such famous figures as Captain James Cook and William Bligh. But for many years she has also played a leading role inside and outside the university, arguing for new ways of thinking on a range of subjects including science, history, business and education.

She plans to pick up this theme on Friday night, arguing that we need to stop viewing the world as a battle between polar opposites - such as male versus female, Maori versus Pakeha and business versus the environment - and search for common ground instead. Or as she puts it in her less academic mode, "we have to stop throwing rocks at each other".

As an example, she cites the river clean-up project, which came out of a two-day forum held on the East Cape in June to mark the Transit of Venus.

Inspired by the work of the late physicist and scientific all-rounder Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, who died three months earlier, it's an attempt to tackle river pollution with a practical, scientifically grounded solution which moves the debate past the name-calling between greenies and farmers.

Salmond acknowledges the Green argument that New Zealand's waterways are still badly polluted by nitrogen-based fertiliser from intensive farming practices that are not sustainable. But those farmers remain the backbone of our export-based economy and, she argues, the average farmer is unlikely to change his methods if you "throw a rock" by accusing him of environmental vandalism. "He's likely to pick up the rock and throw it back at you - and say 'bloody townie'. And in the meantime, the stream is still dirty."

She thinks most politicians have failed to grasp the need to move away from this finger-pointing style since the change to MMP, which she regards as a clear public demand for an end to the traditional, adversarial two-party system.

Salmond contrasts the headline-grabbing spat between Prime Minister John Key and the Maori Council over water rights and power company privatisation with the quiet consensus she says is emerging at the land and water forum, a body which combines environmental groups, iwi and the electricity industry.

It looks possible, she says, for these diverse groups to find agreement in the complicated debate over water use. The bigger question seems to be whether the Government is willing to accept that kind of bottom-up decision making.

Science, she says, is already changing to reflect this need to think outside boxes. Traditional disciplines like geology, hydrology and botany cannot individually supply the answers to problems like saving a river bed from pollution. The top-down thinking which saw human beings in command of the earth - or at best, benevolently caring for its lesser species - has given way to the science of self-organising systems, which sees humans as part of an eco-system, like everything else on the planet. Taking this approach seriously forces us to change the way we think about many environmental issues, especially climate change.

She says that contrary to popular belief, many business people in New Zealand already understand this. She credits Kiwibank chairman Rob Morrison, who also chairs the Pure Advantage lobby group for green growth, with presenting an "almost unanswerable case" that businesses had to act sustainably to survive.

"He's thinking about our adaptation and survival essentially, as a country and as humanity. The arguments were very compelling.

"So I would say the conversation is much more advanced than we think... because a lot of people have been participating."

A sceptic might say say ideas like this sound good but seldom lead to real change. Whatever happened, for instance, to the much-hyped Knowledge Wave conference in 2001?

Actually, Salmond replies after a slight pause, she was heavily involved in that and despite the lack of fanfare, the results are still being felt today. It led to business-based initiatives such as Pure Advantage and Auckland University's increasingly successful Starpath project, which helps put students from low-decile schools on the road to higher education.

Starpath researchers found schools were producing so-called snapshot data, required by the Ministry of Education for funding purposes, but most were not tracking students' performance over time. Once they had this information, teachers could immediately see the warning signs in their 13 and 14-year-old students and react.

The project also discovered that 80 per cent of students at poorer schools wanted to go to university and many were capable of doing so but were taking the wrong subjects. So schools changed their traditional parent-teacher interviews to an academic mentoring system in which teachers, students and parents discussed each child's future in detail. Parent attendance shot up from 17 to 80 per cent and NCEA and University Entrance results are showing signs of improvement.

Salmond, who sponsors the project, is convinced this kind of collaborative, evidence-based change is the only way to achieve lasting success. She's not a big fan of charter schools, the Government's latest response to under-achievement in poor areas. Though she doesn't rule out some of them doing a good job, she says solutions imposed from above are unlikely to resonate with teachers or the students, who matter most.

"The only thing that ought to matter in all of this, and sometimes it feels like it's the last thing, is whether it works for those young people.

"You see is a lot of big bang, short-term experiments in education. There's a lot of money and effort gets put into them and what's going on for the broad mass of students in the public school system doesn't change. And you can't do that."

Despite this criticism, it's noticeable that both her examples of making a difference in conservation and education are apolitical. Neither could be described as left or right wing and, unusually for public debate in New Zealand, neither involves asking the Government for money.

Salmond is keen to get started next year on the river clean-up plan, which she believes will be good for fishing, kayaking and tourism, as well the environmental goals of water quality, biodiversity and soil conservation. "The idea is to do something genuinely world-leading, to make the "New Zealand - 100 per cent Pure" brand real. Not to sit around bemoaning what's going on but to get in there and do something that has a lot of good, practical consequences."

She suggests it's like a slow-burning version of the "stadium of four million", which caught the public imagination for a few months at last year's Rugby World Cup. "We'd like to do something that felt like that, only it lasts."

When & where
* Reeves Memorial Lecture by Dame Anne Salmond
* Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell
* Friday August 17, 7.30pm
* Tickets $30 at
* For more details go to